Objects in space (and time and elevators) …

EDIT: Due to comments in the thread at Pharyngula, it’s clear that my discussions of “impossible” and “cannot” can lead people to think that either it is not possible for anyone to ever objectify in sexual contexts or that no action there could be called objectification can happen if you happen to be in those contexts. Neither of those is what I mean. When I say “impossible”, I mean mostly factually/conceptually; when I say “cannot” I usually mean “ought not” as in a moral obligation except where it’s used in the context of “impossible”.

So, over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has been keeping his streak of discussing feminist issues alive. And it was probably a mistake, but that one interested me enough to comment on it, which exploded into a massive controversy over a contention that I’ve made before, over treating people as objects:

So what did she mean? Well, likely, she was trying to make a link to treating her as only a sexual object, as opposed to a complete human being. Now, to start with, I’m going to say something that might well offend some people, but here goes: there are going to be times when I’m going to treat a woman as nothing more than a sexual object. There are going to be — and have been — times when I’m going to treat a woman as only an intellectual object, such as when we’re working on a project for a class or any sort of academic project. And, heck, there are times when I’m going to treat a woman as a food-fetching object, like when she’s the waitress at a restaurant.

This, of course, builds out to a small argument on my part that it isn’t always wrong to treat someone as an object. And the comment thread exploded (it’s on the second page) with all sorts of argument against this, most of which was centered around a new analogy that I brought up, where I argued that when you’re hurrying down the street you aren’t thinking as complete human beings, but only as obstacles to avoid. Overall, most of the responses were aimed at distinguishing between “real objects” like lampposts and how you treated people, and thus denying that treating people as objects was what was being done in the example. Which, if you look carefully at the first sentence (which I admit I did not right there, although I did explain this once I realized the problem) is not how I was using the term “object”. Yes, we don’t quite treat them like lampposts, but does that mean that we treat them like people? One additional response was taking aim with another example, that essentially of pictures of attractive people that you only consider for the sexual attractiveness. I was intending this to imply the issue with pornography, and someone decided to claim that when you look at a picture you only see the object — the picture — and that the person was not involved. While this might be fair, completely disregarding decades of feminist theory that says that you can objectify a person in how you look at sexually explicit photographs is not a good way when you’re claiming to be on the side of feminism.

But all of these are simply asides anyway, since my main point was essentially this: there are times when treating someone as less than a complete human being — even a sexual one — is not a problem. Which to me included cases like: walking down the street, having them serve you food, reading their paper or their written work, simply admiring a stranger sexually with no actual interaction and maybe some cases of casual sex, where the interest is merely sexual and you don’t really know or care about anything else about them. Now, not finding any sort of simply casual sex all that appealing, I might have been wrong about the last, and the actual replies with something that looked like content — but which missed arguments — focused on this idea: as soon as you start interacting with someone, you can no longer treat them as objects.

So, yesterday was my class day, and as I was walking home I was thinking about this, because to me it didn’t seem to be the case. Surely I was not doing anything wrong when on a bad day I said nothing to the grocery clerk and treated that person as basically something that took my money and gave change. Surely I was not doing anything wrong when I was tired and trying to avoid all contact with people and so didn’t make any eye contact with anyone walking down the street. While cases of sexual admiration from afar and from pictures may not rise to the level of interaction, surely these cases do. So, then, could there be additional cases of interaction — like in some cases of casual sex — where there is interaction but no requirement to see them as a complete person?

So, I started pondering another interesting point that was raised — but, again, not really argued — about what it means to consider someone to be a complete human being. This actually does tie into some of the comments about the differences between how you treat people in the street and how you treat lampposts. In order for me to be able to claim that you treat people sometimes as not complete human beings, I have to be able to distinguish those cases in some way. How do I do that?

So I started looking at the cases where I thought “object” or “person/complete human being”. And I didn’t get a definition, but I noticed something quite interesting. I asked myself: in what cases do I think it impossible to treat someone as not being a person or a complete human being. And two specific examples leaped out at me:

1) Social contexts. When I’m socializing, no matter how I’m socializing, I’m socializing with people in a broad sense of the term. Yes, I might not consider all of their properties, but I must be considering the ones that are critical for personhood. Why? Because I don’t socialize with objects. Things are just not the right sort of things to socialize with. The purpose of socializing is always to socialize with people; if it isn’t with people it isn’t socializing. So a base condition of a social context, then, is that you do that with people. So you can’t, then, reduce those people to anything less than people and remain in a social context.

2) Moral contexts, because I only have moral obligations to people. I have no moral obligations to things, and the whole idea is absurd on the face of it. I don’t have a moral obigation to not destroy a lamppost because ofa moral obligation to the lamppost but because I have a moral obligation to myself or society (made up of people) or the owner of the lamppost, all of which are to people. So if I am to be said to have a moral obligation at all, that must entail a moral obligation to a person, and so I cannot in any cases where I have moral obligations treat the recipient of that moral obligation as anything other than a person.

And, from here, we can see the issue when we get to actual interaction, and specifically to interaction over sexual relations. For the most part, even the most casual of casual sex is, in fact, in a social context. It is, to some degree, socializing. That, in and of itself, would mean that you should treat the other person as a complete human being and not as an object. But that’s not the most important consideration.

The most important consideration is this: do you have any moral obligations to your partner? And the answer seems to be that if consent is introduced — and someone did claim that consent did force the change to personhood — then you do have a moral obligation: to respect their consent and, in fact, to gain it. My response to that was that you can shift contexts and consider them a person once consent is denied, and that works well against the argument that consent is not something that an object can give (as long as you’re good about switching contexts). It doesn’t work against the “moral obligation” point, since that moral obligation, it seems, is present throughout the entire event: from the first approach to the final climax, that moral obligation persists even if it is not exercised and is never required. Thus, the whole event is in a moral context, and moral contexts require treating them as people. And then the comments that treating them as an object might lead to rape get some validity, since you’d have to make sure that you switched in the recognition of the moral obligation that you wouldn’t feel you had if they were just an object and not a complete human being.

Thus, because all sex is always embedded in social and moral contexts, you cannot treat someone as less than a complete human being when you’re having sex, even when you’re having casual sex EDIT: without treading on those obligations (thanks for Dhorvath for the suggestion) .


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